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tv   Book Discussion on Finding the Dragon Lady  CSPAN  June 14, 2014 7:35pm-8:16pm EDT

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different, especially in comparison to many of the journalists who cover american religion and a secular media. many evangelicals feel that they did not get a fair shake from secular liberal journalists who are out to get them, his see a vast right wing conspiracy control in washington and tend to understand evangelicals has an army of zombies that do whatever their pastor commands. part of why i wanted to get into the business of writing about modern american religion was because i felt that they were not being treated sympathetically and fairly. if i knew a bit more about their tradition i would have something to contribute, and i think that remains true. evangelicals respond well to my work because they sense that i respect him, that i take their ideas seriously, that i don't
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think that they are bumpkins who don't think deeply about the problems of butter and the. frankly, i am envious of the. how wonderful the have the certainty that some many of them have. the sense that there was a moment in life when gile spoke to them and told them of their purpose and gave them a sense of mission. not to say i am not aware of the powerful place of doubt in these communities, but part of why i enjoy writing about them is because i find much about their world view very attractive and in the them for it. >> host: this is book tv on c-span2, and we are on the campus of the university of north carolina at chapel hill. we have been talking with history professor molly worthen. here is her most recent book "apostles of reason: the crisis of authority in american evangelicalism". >> visit to watch any of the programs you see here on
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line. type the of the war book title in the search bar on the upper left-hand side of the page and click search. you can also share anything uc easily by clicking share on the upper left side of the page and select in the format. book tv streams live on line for 48 hours every weekend with top nonfiction books and authors. >> next, from the recent chicago tribune printers row lit fest monique brinson demery talks about her biography of the former first lady of vietnam, madame nhu. this is about 45 minutes. conve, eric banks. mr. banks. >> thank you. thank you very much. welcome everybody. it's good to see you here this morning and it's my pleasure to >> welcome. it is my pleasure to welcome monique brinson demery, the author of the amazing book booke dragon lady: the mystery of vietnam's madame nhu," which has recently been published by
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public affairs books. she holds a masters degree from harvard university, and when she made contact with madame nhu who was the unofficial first lady of the south east government in 2005, she was the first journalist to interview her in almost 20 years. she is based in chicago where happy to walking, monique. >> thank you for having me. thank you for coming today. >> it's such an interesting book. i'm curious how you first became interested in writing a book about what i think a lot of people might be somewhat unlikely an unknown subject, someone who was known to scholars of history of the vietnam war, but probably not that well known to so many other people. how did you become interested in madame nhu? >> it started sort of by a mission. my mother is french and my dad is american, so it was a very
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clear to me what had happened there, and every time i tried to ask the adults around, it was too controversial to really talk about. so there is this nagging question of okay what happened in vietnam and every time i looked at a book there was a very gory picture, that you've seen a vietnam or napalm picture and then flip the page and here's this beautiful, stylish comes with a very cosmopolitan looking woman and they're calling for the dragon lady, the diabolical -- what is not to be interested in? i started digging around, and actually out of curiosity wanted to read a book about this woman because her life sounded interesting to me, putting the pieces together. i would have known that she grew up during the french colonial period and i thought, okay, someone has written maybe a great historical book about this one. there was nothing, really just
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these articles from the '60s that had been written about her. and then no biography, no mr. koh fiction. what i noticed was no obituary. so that led me to think, ma wow, she still alive. >> somewhere out there. yes. great fascination for writers who are reporting from vietnam. there was very much a built-up image of her in the united states, but then after she went into exile in rome and later in paris, she does kind of disappear from the records. you had a lot of sleuth working and tracking her down. >> i did. i mentioned there was no obituary. there was no obituary from madame nhu but what he did find was an obituary for parents. her parents in 1986 were living in georgetown. they made the elder after he resigned in protest from his
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daughter and son-in-law's government so they been living in georgetown. and 96 they were murdered in their sleep by their only son. and i thought, this is a real-life? this is nonfiction? so the ministry really threw me in -- zooming in and those of us time madame nhu emerged from her self imposed exclusion to say this is a family affair, leave my family alone. at the time she was living in rome but she was back and forth between rome and paris. >> did you start out possibly, the parents, did you start out thinking about writing about their lives perhaps and then she became such an interesting figure to you a long the way? >> i sort of thought there was something there. their faces looking, 90 -- i'm going to get the names wrong -- 90 and 86 or something when they were murdered and they were murdered i read in their pajamas. that seem so heartbreaking and
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sad. i start looking into it and what i found was that these lives, these very sympathetic, elderly couple had, in fact, lived quite a life before that. madame nhu's mother was known as the pearl of the orient by the french. and benefit archives was digging around all these references to she slept with and why and then she slept with the japanese. and in this sort of further confusing, she was 14 when she had her daughter. 14 years old. so i thought, there's really, there's so much contradiction here and she wasn't just a sweet old lady. she was a sweet old lady who slept around quite a bit. but you also had a daughter at 14. all of those questions kind of led me to pursue them. >> it's a very aristocratic family. we probably need to take a step back and see exactly who madame nhu was. she was calm her brother-in-law, the brother of her husband became president of south vietnam in 1956 or 55.
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>> fifty-four he becomes premier. so yes, madame nhu is the first de facto first lady because the president of south vietnam, and there's a few titles before that, primus to, premier, for simplicity call him the president. he was a bachelor. that's what makes them sound like he was going to vegas on the weekend but he was really very moral. he slept on a hard, wouldn't can't. he personally signed entry visas in and out of the country sing up late at night. there's this very catholic austere man who needed a first lady became somewhat to host parties and go to the orphanages and those flowers should. so madame nhu, his younger brotherbrother site becomes thin and she perfect for. she looked great for the cameras. should like to be out there. this gives her a voice. all of her life i think matter
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had been looking for the perfect combining, she was the second child, she been overlooked as a child. she had a bit of a chip on her shoulder, and so for her to be handed this, you go, b. the first lady, be the official hostess, she took it and ran with it. >> and she basically occupied this role up until 1963, when the government was upended, and her husband and her brother-in-law were both executed. >> that's right. and one within. madame nhu wasn't just first lady to she was overwhelmingly elected by like an unrealistic 99.9% of the population to hold seats in congress, in their legislature. so by doing so should still the first lady hosting parties but you can also pass laws. so madame nhu past these family and morality laws. some of them were very well intended, i think perhaps they're all well intended but
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south of the needs women were not able to open bank accounts but they were not touch the south vietnamese women. madame nhu -- before the laws. so madame nhu recognized what her husband and her brother did that was the 50% of the population was being just ignored except by the communists were doing a great job of recruiting women. so madame nhu thought okay, let's give these women some rights and some power, and she did and sort of took it upon herself to be the voice of the women. she doesn't like most vietnamese women. she came from a very aristocratic family. they spoke french at the dinner table. so for her to suddenly declare herself a voice of the vietnamese woman was all presumptions. >> she couldn't msha's unable to write in vietnamese, is that correct speak what she didn't write, i mean she could, but she expressed herself most will only in french which is what of course she studied in school and
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what they spoke at home. so the other laws that she passed were a little ridiculous. i mean, thinking about them in context it seems to make sense. vietnam was a country at war and the north vietnamese, the communist were to ever good job of saying this is a war, we have to treat it is usually. madame nhu was wordy, it's becoming like a party. there were girly bars and all of that stuff that is on restarting and madame nhu said no, we have to take a series of. so she outlawed dancing along with prostitution. she outlawed hand holding and kissing but she outlawed underwire bras, but she wore them. so she had these sort of, this moral like high horse, and then the best was her sister had been married off young like a madame nhu head, this is her older sister issues married to a guy who worked for the government. they fell out of love i guess
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come in a, and she fell in love instead with a french guy. he was a big game hunter and madame nhu thought you can't leave good upstanding vietnamese guys for a french guy. disappointing colonial. so when her sister tried to divorce her husband, madame nhu outlawed divorce, and the story goes, there's a record of this but the story goes madame nhu sister slashed her wrists and going to the pound and madame nhu locks up in hospital and takes her own mother to come back to saigon to break up the daughter then goes to the united states enters the french guy anyway. >> they are still alive, correct? >> i believe so. >> she lives in north carolina, correct? >> i tried to reach out to her with letters, but the event unanswered. so her husband has published a couple memoirs at this time, and they been published by a small press and candida, perhaps self-published. quite interesting.
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>> one of the things remarkable about your book and her store, and i should point out you mentioned her looks, a real striking figure is hard to characterize her but the image on the cover really says it all. you all probably can't see it from a distance, but she knows how to handle a pistol. and especially with the sort of beehive haircut that gives a nice luck's been she did have a fashion thing. a high collar, a manager in color and madame nhu was one of the first to say, you know, if you've got it, flaunt it. so she cut the neck down so you could see kind of her collarbone. at the time this was like really risk a. so the president, her brother-in-law, said don't you think that's a little too flashy quick she said something like, it's not your neck that is sticking out, it's mine so shut up. >> that's a great line. what is going to say though is it's fascinating not just from a
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geopolitical standpoint and from a historical standpoint but it really is a family saga as well. one also where you see someone who is able to use whatever we think about her, and we can come back to that end a little bit, has this incredible amount of gumption. she managed to create herself and to really direct her own idea of what a public image would be, with an iron will pick anything that's really fascinating about her. and it seems like when you may contact with her, many years later, that that sense of herself was still very much intact. >> i love the word gumption but i think that's a great description. and yes, madame nhu was going to tell her own story. so when i did find madame nhu she was in her early 80s, and
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she sort of said to me, this is great. you are the angels that god sent to me. we are going to do my memoirs. you're going to get me a book deal, it's going to be great. and i was like, all right, you know. but i wanted to hear what she had to say but she had very specific way of seeing her past, which is understandable. perhaps we all revise history in our own way but madame nhu, she was -- vietnam was the center of the universe and she was sort of the thing everything revolves around. so she was very much at the center of her story, but then again it was also understandable. her husband and brother-in-law were killed by the sanction of the americans and should gone through this life had been quite hard. and so i think to make sense of it she really turned to religion and that was the only way that she could really make sense of things, and biblically or ordained. >> a joan of arc idea, survivor
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story. how did she come -- do you think it's just the force of her personality gave her the presents she had in the government? the american thought she was really the problem behind the problem that were very clear with, in the south vietnamese government, that she was the one pulling the strings. i think the way that you write about or she does come across as a who had an unbelievable amount of influence over what her brother-in-law did. do you think that's just come you know, force of the personnel because you write about, for example, when she was taken a prisoner of war in 1946 by the communists, and that this figure images from that who is so strong. is that your sense of it or do you think her role has been
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somewhat overrated in government? >> i think it is actual bit of both, if that's possible. madame nhu has the story of when she's taken by the communists and she's carrying her infant daughter, walking across the bridge and bullets are flying and she emerges unscathed. for her, she was like oh, yeah, i got i a. all got to do is be brave. and that message, that, in the face of your in any, stare him down, and stand strong the matter what you do don't back down, that was kind of her motto. everything she tried to pass that on to the brothers. there was one point when they ty were negotiating, there didn't t attend to attend an institution to open up his government and madame nhu thought that was just awful, that he would dare to share power and all of us do. she convinced him to stand firm. in some way yes, she had the power to convince the brothers that they did need to open up
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the government. they needed to lock all the doors and keep it even more -- but i think the other thing is just the appearance that it looked like the men were following what she said. kennedy said something like she looks like she is leading the meant around by her apron strings. so they're just sort of following and i think i was just as dangerous as any real power, to make it, they were sort of an estimate by her and that was kennedy's biggest fear is that they would look like america was following us for late around and that was not going to fly. >> yes, and so much of her criticism of, well, i should put it this way. so much of her reaction to what was taking place in vietnam, modernization, its neo-colonialization if you want to call it that, westernization that started to appear in south vietnam, in the late '50s and '60s that she run it against, was very much a criticism of
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america. it put her very much, because so much of that was made possible by the influx of foreign policy money from the united states, which put her very quickly i think on the opposite side of the thinking of the government of the united states. states. >> she was happy for the money. let's be clear, that was how they were funding the fight. but what they wanted was the money but then stay out of our business, let us run our government. and the united states obviously wanted strings attached to that money. when things were going the right way, for example, the united states tried to send in ground troops a lot earlier but the brothers of said absently not. you know, these have to be advisors only. it wasn't until much later that the vietnam war escalate into what it became. >> there were several trenches attempts against the government began in 1960, i believe. -- coup attends.
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a couple of air men desperate she narrowly survived spent there was a direct hit on madame nhu's bedroom. some rogue south vietnamese air force pilot was tired of this sort of bossy lady, pushy lady. one of the vietnamese i talked to said she was, talked to big. she was too much. one of these south vietnamese air force pilots was upset about it and did a direct hit of her sweet. so there was this gaping hole. madame nhu fell through she said three stories -- again, one of her sort of survival, she survived it, it was magical. but she hurt her arm but one of the children's nannies was killed but otherwise no one, no one in the family was hurt. >> and then finally the protest against the government began to escalate in 62 and 63, and there
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are, for the first time very strong confrontation with the buddhists in vietnam, which he described very well. why don't you tell us about how those protests started and what, i think this is really when madame nhu filter place, a bad figure in history around the buddhists protest to if you will remember, there was the famous pictures of the buddhist monks burning themselves at traffic stops. i think they were seven who committed suicide that way, the way of protesting against the government. >> it started with a law that had been on the books since colonial time. no flag was allowed to fly-a state like but, of course, nobody really paid attention to the. there had just been a catholic festival and white and gold flags have been flying all over, and so for the buddhists birthday sometime in may, one of the brothers, so there's the president, his brother, madame nhu's husband who was kind of
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ahead of the secret police, also in charge of all the politics, he was kind of a guy who did the dirty deeds, and there were a few other brothers, one of whom was the archbishop of a city in central vietnam. when is coming into town one when he noticed that buddhist flag was flying to i. so he ordered people to take it down and there was this backlash by the buddhists of why are you enforcing this random law now against the backing down and saying, you're right, we're making a mess out of this, they cracked down and it was suddenly a protest by the buddhists. people started firing on them. people were killed, and so then assessing we are sorry, things got out of hand. the family played the communist. blame the communist. sort quickly turn into a mess, and basically the buddhists repression was less, less repression in the way we think
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of now than more of a vehicle for every grievance you think of because no one had been allowed to say anything against this family. but 90% of the country was buddhists so anyone could identify with this, you're putting down these people, so it would -- everybody jumped on the bandwagon. elderly monks were self immolating, which means they were letting themselves on fire. when madame nhu solid, she sounded like marie antoinette. you know, great, let's clap our hands and have a barbecue. the most cruel response you get to old buddhist monk lighting himself on fire and that just spread like wildfire around the world. people couldn't believe that she could be so callous. now, from madame nhu's perception was the buddhists have been intoxicated, which doesn't mean drunk, it means poison. they been intoxicated by communism everywhere a very loose knit association organization. there were no strict rules coming in, coming out.
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madame nhu was pretty sure they had already been infiltrated by kindness. and it turns out actually that by 1968, the united states even agreed, yes, they had been used as a cover by communist. but it was such a shocking thing to say and then to be so light casual about suicide, it's unforgivable. >> it's never, i don't think it's ever a good tactic for a leader who is dependent on foreign aid to castigate buddhist monks for protesting in the name of religious freedom and whatever else. and that is really when i think at that point that the u.s. government knows that is a problem on its hands, and i ..y supports the coup that will,. >> correct. in august, president kennedy okayed a change in government. the new ambassador was sent over to saigon goes with the
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understanding that he is there to go look for alternatives to the summit has been in power now. and it takes some, there's some false starts but, you know, some real alternatives have finally been identified. the brothers are killed in november 1, 1963, which many of you know that's just a few weeks before kennedy himself was assassinated. so madame nhu is a conspiracy figure in some of these who killed kennedy questions. many think it has something do with madame nhu, but i can assure you it doesn't. but it was a terrible, terrible time. and so kennedy seems really shocked that the brothers had been killed. by all accounts he gets up when he hears the news and he is visibly shaken, can't believe it, they killed the brothers. but he was the one who sort of gave the okay to go ahead and topple this allied country, this from the regime and overthrow
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the. for him to think they could've got any other way, a little naïve. >> at the time she was on a tour of the united states. did she believe that if she came to the united states to convince people that there was a grave threat, if our government was not supported that communists would topple south south vietnam pretty quickly so she came to united states on a speaking tour and quite a spectacular tour. she went to a lot of colleges, to a lot of television and probably harder to do that than it probably is today i think. what was a reception like when she came to the united states? >> it was very mixed so as you say she came to united states because she had been asked to leave vietnam. the buddhist thing had really escalated and the united states said the only way we are going to tamp this down and restore any order is if madame nhu just leave so this had been something
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that cm and his brother had not been willing to do but finally they said okay madam knew you have got to go now. where did she go? she comes to united states and goes on a press relations to her and she doesn't understand the difference. she's invited to speak about harvard and columbia and georgetown and she is also invited by "meet the press" and all of these press organizations and she doesn't understand why she feels like the government hasn't rolled out the red carpet for her. wasn't she invited and she just doesn't get the separation between the press and the government because in her country of course the press can only say what the government wants them to say so for her it was totally befuddling to the end of her days. i can understand why they invited me to come and then say go home. why don't they want me here? she goes to new york and she goes to washington d.c.. she comes to chicago and stays in the blackstone hotel.
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one of my favorite moments of the trip as she goes to dallas and there's a ranch there and she gets invited to go shooting. her daughter dresses up in western gear and apparently has her first teenage romance with the texas guy. and her reception that bad of new gets her mother is worried about her visit to united states so she pulls a state department isi and has a meeting and says madam knew really should not come near. i've want all the vietnamese to throw tomatoes at her and if they see her to run her over with their car. this is her mother. she does get tomatoes thrown at her. she gets egg thrown at her and she gets standing ovations from fordham from georgetown and a lot of catholic education. >> she really mapped out the kalat -- college itinerary and her catholicism was also very
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important part of her political ideology if you would call it that. what she seen in that light in 1963 in the united states? i assumed to the extent that she was hitting places like florida and georgetown and they were very much self-conscious of that but with that part of her reception as well? >> i do think so and part of the political philosophy of the south vietnamese government was based on something called personalism reaches this philosophy that started in france in the 20s and it was a catholic philosophy. it was supposed to be an alternative to pure capitalism and, me miss him so was kind of this third way. it really was a cornerstone of their government. no one could quite understand how that translated to south vietnam and so that was really the problem wasn't in marketing that the regime had bought all this property outside of rome and property in post-war rome is
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pretty inexpensive so they bought up large tracts of land with the idea that then they would send the south vietnamese functionaries over to rome to go get indoctrinated in their version of personalism and then come back to south vietnam. it didn't work out so well but it was a place at madame nhu after her family with self empowered she could go back to that land outside of from which is now very valuable and sold off piece by piece to survive. >> i was curious about ending her relationship with kennedy and the fact that he disliked her so much and always more interested in how the catholicism worked into that. you almost think that there might be some kind of sense of closeness between her and kennedy that was obviously not there. if anyone the person who had the fondest thoughts about her would have would have been lbj. >> that's right. madame nhu was convinced he was flirting with her. i think he may have flirted with everyone but the connections
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between the family in saigon and the kennedy family and washington is really uncanny. on paper they look like they should have gotten along great. catholic families -- catholic families and very anti-communist so they should have really gotten along well but as it turned out they didn't jacqueline kennedy was a real critic of madame nhu. she thought matter knew was just pushy and she called her -- she called her everything that jack found unattractive. in the press she boasted about her own marriage to president kennedy saying oh they had this easy added marriage. >> that's a direct quote. >> what is that? who knows but submissive and madame nhu was anything but submissive so the worst that she could say about her was that she was probably a. >> you talked about also about the kind of idea of the dragon lady. it's a stereotype that applied
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to any number of powerful women from asian countries and particularly in government from the beginning of the 20th century to the end of the 20th century. >> absolutely. there is madam chiang kai-shek was the dragon lady and then you see her in every kind of hollywood bad guy movie starting -- starring that powerful sly conniving asian woman or she is the very submissive geisha girl. there is really these two ways that asian women have been portrayed and so when women rise to a certain level of politics they certainly get shoved into one of these two very neat categories. >> we than halved chicago's own own. >> that's right she was in jakarta. >> what i was trying to reckon with this very complex figure
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and you try to present her and all her complexities which i believe is wonderful, i kept thinking also about a melba marcos who does not come up in the book but it strikes me as a kind of counter model. she certainly was a figure like that. >> she was and i just heard there was a broad light -- an off-broadway play in new york disco themed about a melba marcos. >> it's called kiki boots. >> is called here lies love and i think madame nhu would be a great character for the next musical. a melba marcos was flashy and flamboyant and did not go quietly either. >> has anyone been interested in making a film about her life? >> not that i know of. >> if there's anyone out there taking offers. >> that's right.
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>> you perfect you portray this will in the book but tell us what she was like when you finally did make contact. she wasn't exactly advertising where she lived in paris. she wasn't really -- she avoided paris for some time because she had been extradited. >> korea it, yes. >> and rented the apartment that they owned in paris? >> madame nhu said she was given the apartment. she said it wasn't anonymous gift and implied had given to her by the american government because they felt bad about knocking off her husband and her brother-in-law. they wanted to keep her in a safe place so she would rent out that apartment and get that extra cash from it. that is where i found herself -- my vietnamese is very bad but from now on i go on line and try to dictionary decipher my dear little article and i found this
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article written in early 2000's by a guy who claim to have interviewed madame nhu. she was on the 12th floor of this building and that run the bell to me so i went back to my notes and i thought oh i see her that she wrote a letter to clare boothe luce from this actress close to the eiffel tower. i will go there and see if i can find her. as osama thought there was no way i would ever get her to talk to me. >> this was around 2005. >> around 2005. it turns out i go to this address and it's only eight stories high so my vietnamese is really bad. i totally miss translated this thread a look around paris and i realize all the buildings in paris are in fact really low and if i'm looking for a 12 story building i won't have to go very far. >> it's like washington d.c.. there are limits on how high buildings can be built so it really sticks out if it's a tall building. >> i started walking around paris literally knocking on doors until i found a building
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that was high enough. finally i got to a building and a citizen older vietnamese woman live here? she does not live here. she lives next door so that was how i found her. i was writing her letters and asking her to let me tell her story trying to pitch it as sort of let me do this in a scholarly way. what ended up happening was the most unscholarly thing possible. we connected in a way because the day that she called me for the first time i had written maybe 10 letters at this point, was the day that i found out that i was pregnant. so i get this phonecall and the woman says this is madame nhu and i just found out i was pregnant with her their first son. automatically my relationship with her going through the birth of my son who was all this maternal grandmother of my being. we told our families that we were expecting but before i told
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many of my friends i told this woman on the phone who immediately change her attitude towards me. it was suddenly like i have been there. let me tell you my experience and we could really connect in a way that was so personal and i think unthreatening for her because suddenly i was this girl who needed help. she had four children should she could tell me everything there was to know. >> and then you develop this relationship over a number of years and a game of cat and mouse. how long did it take for her really to start to talk to you about the -- that she was hopefully going to tell you about. >> she started talking about the number right away but it was clear this memoir was never going to be produced. she had been talking about memoir in 1963. she mentioned that this the saturday evening post. she said that there are pages everywhere even under my sofa.
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i thought oh god shui are never going to get this. they did exist and before she passed away she was ill for a long time and before she passed away she decided okay we have got to get this done. this is my last chance to get my side of the story heard so she sent them to me all 400 pages of why she was the center of the universe. >> we want to take your questions if you have many but i want to ask a couple of things before we do that. you're writing about period that is seen in the american imagination for some time as being so important. how has the book been received? when we talked earlier you mentioned you get a lot of feedback from vietnam veterans and people who are interested in the history of south vietnam of south vietnam and want to know more about that. what has that been like? >> there have been two different responses in them and the
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veterans community has been wanted full and curious about my work and in some sense the harshest critics. i am young and i wasn't there and i don't have that experience so i really do respect the people who had first-hand experience their. they often wonder why would you ever go digging into this woman? she was terrible and she should just be left as it is. she heard so many people and made vietnam which is already a problem so much worse. why would you ever go digging around in that? my answer to that is simply because she was a fascinating exploration of what went wrong with our involvement in south vietnam and she sort of personalized as the history in a way that people of my generation when i was in eighth grade we couldn't even talk about the vietnam war yet in school because it wasn't okay. it was too controversial so i think now there is more education about it but i think it's still a really hard
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conflict to streamline and get people talking about. so if this is one way to do that madame nhu is a very polarizing figure and i think needs to be explored warts and all. >> digit personal feelings for her change over time when you saw her? you started the project having a sense for being a black-and-white figure politically and historically. i don't know whether you did begin from that kind of position but did she become much more personalized in the process of working on the book? >> certainly when i started i said this is a woman who has been stereotyped in sexist and i was going to rescue her but she really didn't need to be rescued. she was good at that. she was complicated so i think my initial, i'm going to do this world a great


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